Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 30, 2021

History For Helio

We probably should have seen this coming.  After all, it has been a pretty good year for old guys – at least as the term applies to professional athletes, since our games are normally the dominion of players in their twenties.  There was 43-year-old Tom Brady guiding Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory, and 50-year-old Phil Mickelson winning the PGA Championship just last week.  So, it should not have surprised any fan when the New York Times chose to profile Scott Dixon in the runup to this year’s Indianapolis 500, for the 40-year-old appeared to be just the latest example of an athlete achieving greatly at what would be considered by many an advanced age for his sport. 

Like the football player and the golfer, Dixon had already accomplished so much, with six IndyCar Series championships in his career and 51 victories in American open-wheeled racing, a number that puts him third on the all-time list, just one win behind Mario Andretti.  Dixon was also a legitimate favorite to capture his second Indy 500 on Sunday.  He arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway having won one of the first five IndyCar races this season and leading the Series points race.  He then proceeded to capture the pole for this year’s 500, so it was not a rash bet to favor Dixon not just leading the field past the green flag but being in front for the checkered as well.

Yet for all the obvious emphasis on speed, races can turn on issues that have nothing to do with barreling down a straightaway at 220 miles per hour.  Things like the timing of pit stops and decisions on fuel strategy, the relative tire wear of two otherwise equally speedy competitors, or, in Dixon’s case, an engine that wouldn’t start.  The race was still in its early stages, the field cycling through initial pit stops, when Stefan Wilson crashed entering pit row, bringing out a caution flag and briefly closing the pits to other cars.  By the time he made another circuit of the two-and-a-half-mile oval Dixon ran out of fuel, and though he was able to coast down the lane to his stall, his crew then had trouble getting the engine on the #9 Honda to refire.  By the time Dixon was running again he had fallen one lap down to the rest of the field, and while he certainly didn’t quit, eventually working his way back into the top-10 late in the race before sliding back to finish 17th, Dixon’s hopes that IndyCar’s titular race would be where he tied Andretti were effectively dashed less than a hundred miles into the proceedings.

For much of the rest of the race, it looked like this 500 would serve as coming out party for one of the sport’s next generation.  The potential for such a result had been heralded by the finishes in this season’s earlier events.  While Dixon triumphed in the Genesys 300 at Texas Motor Speedway, the other four races were all won by drivers between 20 and 24 years old – Alex Palou at the season-opening Grand Prix of Alabama, Colton Herta in St. Petersburg, Pato O’Ward at the second race in Texas, and Rinus Veekay at the GMR Grand Prix, run two weeks ago over the Brickyard’s road course.  Those results are a powerful reminder that IndyCar is in the midst of generational change.  So too was the fact that all four young drivers spent time at the front of the pack on Sunday, combining to lead 97 of the 200 laps.  Palou, O’Ward and Veekay all came home in the top-10, and Herta’s 16th place finish was at least one spot better than Dixon.

It was Palou, at 24 the senior member of that foursome, who was poised for the checkered flag as the self-styled “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” entered its final laps.  But the sporting gods who lately seem intent on favoring veteran athletes were aware that there was a driver in the field who was both several years older than Dixon and for whom a victory would at once be both more consequential and far more unlikely.

At 46, Helio Castroneves of Brazil appeared to be in the uncomfortable netherworld of aging sports heroes – well past the prime of his career yet unwilling to quietly leave the stage.  It is a role fans have seen played by so many, in all our games, and it almost always ends badly.  Castroneves had 21 IndyCar wins over two decades, and came home first at Indianapolis in 2001, 2002, and 2009.  While never capturing the Series title, he finished second in the IndyCar points standings four times, most recently in 2014.  But he had not had a full-time ride since 2017, and after losing even his part-time role for Penske Racing after last season, this year he signed on to run just six races for Meyer Shank Racing, a tiny team that had never started a winner of an IndyCar race.  Still, Castroneves had shown that his skills were intact, winning the 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race in January while driving for Taylor Wayne Racing.  He started in the fourth row Sunday, so it was clear he had a fast car.  In a race that was generally free of trouble, Castroneves was content for most of the afternoon to stay near the front, allowing others to lead the field. 

But when matters turned serious in the final laps, he called upon the experience gained from many thousands of miles run over open-wheeled racing’s most famous oval.  Castroneves moved in behind Palou as they sped past the row of bricks that mark the finish line for the next to last time.  As the pair headed down the front straight, he swung to the outside – an unexpected move – and raced past the leader even as the two cars entered Turn 1.  By the time they came out of Turn 2 Castroneves had cemented his lead, leaving just a lap-and-a-half for Palou to reclaim the advantage.  Youth may well be served by the time the IndyCar season ends, but it came up short on Sunday.

The checkered flag moved Castroneves into the small and exalted class of four-time Indy 500 winners.  After joining A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., and Rick Mears, Castroneves was his typically ebullient and emotional self.  Always one of the most popular drivers in the Series, he parked his car at the finish line, got out, and climbed the protective fencing to wave at and celebrate with the fans.  As race officials waited patiently on the other side of the track for the traditional wreath presentation and milk-drinking celebration, Castroneves hugged everyone in sight.  And, it should be noted, it looked very much like everyone on the grounds wanted to hug him back.  It was a most unlikely end to the Indianapolis 500.  Which is to say, it was exactly the result we all should have seen coming.


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